Making Alaska a Safer Place to Work

Posted on by John Howard, M.D.


During 1980-1989, Alaska had the highest work-related fatality rate of any state in the nation, with a rate of 34.8 deaths per 100,000 workers per year compared to the average U.S. rate of 7 deaths per 100,000 workers per year. At the invitation of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Alaska Area Native Health Service of the Indian Health Service, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Division of Safety Research in Morgantown, West Virginia established the Alaska Field Station (AFS) in Anchorage, Alaska on August 15, 1991.

Today, we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the establishment of the NIOSH Alaska Field Station (AFS). From its inception, the mission of AFS was to combat the urgent problem of work-related fatalities in Alaska. AFS served as a “catalyst for change” by providing a scientific assessment of occupational safety hazards, such as identifying the state’s highest risk industries, the workers most at risk of fatality and the highest priority problems.

Achievements over the Past 25 Years

Smart surveillance to identify hazards and tailored prevention efforts for the highest risk industries and occupations have resulted in a 77% decline in the rate of fatalities among Alaska’s workers since 1990.  This was driven by the 75% decrease in the number of commercial fishing and 88% decrease in the number of pilot fatalities. AFS scientists developed the Alaska Occupational Injury Surveillance System (AOISS) to collect detailed information on all work-related traumatic fatalities in the state. Furthermore, AFS and its Alaskan partners created the Interagency Working Group for the Prevention of Work-Related Fatalities  as a non-regulatory initiative for developing occupational safety interventions in several industries.


AFS and aviation safety partners began a multifaceted public health approach to aviation safety during the late 1990s. Much of this work was encompassed in the Alaska Interagency Aviation Safety Initiative (AIASI) which focused on improving safety for air taxi and commuter airlines operations in Alaska. These partners included the National Transportation Safety Board Alaska Regional Office, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, and the Alaska Air Carriers Association. The interventions that were developed included improved technology, education and voluntary changes in aviation safety culture.  Marked improvements to aviation safety were observed after implementation of the interventions.

More recent activities related to aviation safety includes the development of a fatigue training tool for pilots of air taxi operations, which are common in Alaska.  The training product is to improve fatigue awareness, assessment, management, prevention and training and will be made available to all pilots and aviation companies in Alaska.  More recently NIOSH has worked on preventing runway excursions and mid-air collisions in Alaska.

Commercial Fishing

For the first 15 years, AFS focused its prevention efforts on improving safety among fishermen in Alaska by focusing on decreasing hazards in specific Alaskan commercial fishing fleets through evaluating marine safety training, the impact of recent Coast Guard regulations, developing engineering solutions to deck hazards and supporting the implementation of safety programs the US Coast Guard created for the Bering Sea crab fleet and the Head and Gut fleet.  In 2007, NIOSH expanded its commercial fishing safety research program from a regional program that focused on hazards in Alaska, to a National Program. Since 2007, this program has established national surveillance for all commercial fishing fatalities in the US to identify high-risk fisheries and regional hazards. The program has also focused research activities to prevent vessel losses and falls overboard which are the leading causes of fatality in the industry.

AFS will continue to provide technical assistance to partners including the U.S. Coast Guard, in accordance with the newly authorized U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. These activities will result in further declines in the fishing fatality rates in the U.S.  NIOSH research has influenced regional, national and international fishing safety polices, and NIOSH scientists are frequently approached by external partners for technical assistance.

The foremost issue in commercial fishing safety is the current development of Alternate Safety Compliance Programs (ASCP) for fishing vessels at least 50’ mandated by congress in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010. NIOSH has received numerous requests for studies of fishing industry fatalities and vessel disasters in specific fleets, districts, areas, as well as nationwide. NIOSH has made these studies a top priority for the Commercial Fishing Safety Research and Design Program, and will continue to strive for excellence in collecting and analyzing data, publishing and presenting results, and issuing sensible recommendations for solutions.

Future Work

In 2015, AFS joined NIOSH’s Denver and Spokane sites to form the Western States Division.  The Western States Division will continue to work to improve workplace safety in high risk industries in the West.  Current projects not only look at reducing hazards in aviation and commercial fishing, but also oil and gas, wildland firefighting.  NIOSH also just established the Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies. The Center will conduct research to enhance occupational safety and health for the high-risk maritime worker population.

The ocean environment presents many challenges to those who must protect seafaring workers’ safety and health. Some of these challenges are seen dockside at shipyards and marine terminals, while other hazards are unique to vessels operating in commercial fishing, freight transportation, and passenger service. Workers in marine industries are at higher risk for work-related fatalities.  A focused, epidemiological approach to reducing fatalities in high-risk occupations is effective.  Ongoing commitment to this type of approach will assist in continued success in Alaska and elsewhere.

The impact over the last two and a half decades of NIOSH work in Alaska shows how a commitment to collaborative efforts by governmental agencies, industry and nongovernmental organizations will assist in reducing risks of work-related fatalities in Alaska and in the high-risk industries found in Alaska and elsewhere.  The overall decline in work-related fatalities in Alaska demonstrates the success of a focused, epidemiological approach to reducing fatalities in high-risk occupations.  In addition, the programs that work in Alaska to reduce fatalities in these high-risk industries have expanded geographically.  The “Alaska Field Station Approach” to reducing workplace fatalities has expanded to address similar high-risk industries in other states including those with commercial fishing vessels as well as the oil and gas and wildland firefighting industries that have aviation transportation as a hazard.

We all look forward to Alaska’s next 25 years!

John Howard, M.D.

Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Posted on by John Howard, M.D.

12 comments on “Making Alaska a Safer Place to Work”

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    Congratulations on a job well done. Lives and families were saved. The reduction of the rate of fatal occupational injuries in Alaska is a case study in how government intervention can save lives. Another is the reduction of the rate of fatalities in coal mines following passage of the Coal Mine Health & Safety Act of 1969. Reduction of coal mine fatalities was the result of aggressive regulatory intervention; the Alaska example appears not to be from regulation. Another, less recognized reduction of the rate of fatalities occurred in metal and non-metal mines. This reduction roughly paralleled the decline in coal mine fatalities both in timing and the rate of decline. Yet metal and non-metal mines did not come under federal regulation until 1977 and there was no apparent intervention such as the Alaska Field Station. There are lessons to be learned by comparing all three of these impressive accomplishments.

    Thanks for your comment. The AFS staff now and in the past 25 years are the greatest!

    Congratulations! I worked on occupational health and safety problems in Alaska in the 1980s and left just as the NIOSH office was opening. It’s been amazing to watch the accomplishments of the small group of staff and their impact. I strongly agree with Jim’s comments above on the value of understanding the lessoned learned and replicating this in other areas.

    In a short time, you’ve made a major impact on workplace fatalities. You have applied the strategy of epidemiology and a simple examination of Agent-Host-Environment to unravel causes and then determine appropriate prevention efforts in the very highest risk situations.

    It’s a demonstration of a basic approach that it appears will be applied more broadly, as it should.

    You have effectively saved lives and prevented untold trauma! Congratulations on your well-documented accomplishments!

    Dr. Bender, thank you for reading about the accomplishments of the great staff at the NIOSH Alaska Office in Anchorage and for your comments.

    Wow! That’s nice work! Thank you! I’m from Bothell and I’m working at [name removed], but that’s not the same thing. Keep doing great works!

    Good luck, guys!

    Great job. Your planning, activities are so encouraging to make make Alaska a safe place. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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Page last reviewed: February 22, 2018
Page last updated: February 22, 2018